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Fuelling an interest in biofuels

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Cornelius Claeys, manager of renewable transport fuels at Stratas Advisors, outlines what attracted him to become involved in this sector.
What was your first job?
My first job ever was as a bartender, so I guess technically I was selling ethanol at the age of 15. My first grown-up job involved no alcohol at all. This was in Saudi Arabia, where I analysed the potential of the country’s economy to transition away from oil and gas. Following some other early professional experiences in Latin America and Asia, I settled back in my home country - Belgium.
What interested you about the biofuels industry?
What still gets me excited about biofuels every day, is that they are so deeply rooted in such different fields of the sciences. They are a fuel, so the laws of physics and chemics apply. They are also a commodity, meaning they cannot be separated from economics. We would not be talking about them if it were not for the policies driving uptake, so it is all political science too. To be a good analyst in this field, you also need to understand law, geopolitics, logistics, agriculture, and environmental science. Add to this the fact that biofuels are so closely related to some of the biggest challenges of our time – climate change and energy independence. I cannot imagine ever getting bored of this sector.

What does a typical day consist of?
I generally start my workday processing emails that came in overnight. My team is spread out over Europe, the Americas, and Asia – so there is always someone online. While the coffee is brewing, I have a quick look at Twitter and tailored newsletters to make sure there are no major developments we should be taking up in our analysis. Usually, I would have a few calls with existing or potential clients over the course of the day, which is always a great opportunity to learn from each other. The diversity in contact profiles, keeps these exchanges interesting. On a normal day, I could speak with a feedstock trader, a journalist, a plant engineer, an investment banker, an EU official, a food producer, a carmaker, and a researcher at an NGO. Internal calls are also part of the order of the day – to co-ordinate ongoing consulting engagements and research focuses. Ideally, I reserve a few hours each day to delve into a given subject myself as well. A few recent examples of such topics, include the impact of EU Fit for 55 on niche biofuel grades, the role that E-SAF from green hydrogen will play in conventional refineries, or the country-level availability of waste triglycerides.
Tell us a bit about Stratas?
Stratas Advisors is an energy research and consulting firm. I am leading the renewable transport fuels team, which includes two subscription-based services focused on biofuels. Others subscription services that our company offers, are fuel specifications, automotive, hydrogen, downstream, and more. Under each of these, clients get access to a range of interactive data-tools, deep-dive analyses, and topical writeups. In addition, we also do more tailor-made consulting engagements. Thanks to the diverse profiles of our staff, our global presence and our manageable size, Stratas is quite a versatile company. We can provide insights and analysis around anything energy related and are very happy to jump on a quick call with whoever wants to learn more.
What type of leadership skills do you possess?
Personally, I believe in a flat hierarchy whereby team members are relatively empowered. When you keep your team motivated in this way, a lot of energy frees up that would have otherwise gone into micromanaging, and usually team members take more ownership of their work. Of course, there is no fixed set of leadership skills that works in every context. Everything depends on the team, the sector, the culture, the personalities involved, etc. A good leader creates an environment where every team member can come to their full potential – while making sure goals are reached in the most efficient way.
What is your favourite book and film?
Tough choice. We are spoiled these days in having any book or film just a few clicks away. There are not enough hours in the day to keep up with everything – let alone pick a favourite. One book-film pair that comes to mind is Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and Apocalypse Now, the film inspired by Conrad’s book. The book is from the late 1800s, set in what is now Congo. The film came out in the late 1970s, set in Vietnam. Both were much ahead of their time in their style and capture the spirit of the time in a delightfully critical manner. Most books I read are non-fiction though, particularly anything energy or transport related.
How do you like to relax?
Taking my bicycle for a spin with a podcast usually does the trick. A few energy-focused ones that come to mind: Fuel for Thought, Redefining Energy, Catalyst, and Rethink Energy. I do also enjoy a good meal with friends and family, playing chess, or working out in the open-air gym in a nearby park.
Where is the best place to go on holiday?
Beaches can be stunning. However, spending more than a few hours on one does not appeal much to me personally. Getting to know a new culture, reading a good book on a mountain top, or submerging in a foreign megacity excites me more. Trips do not need to be far or long necessarily. Part of the reason I like living in Brussels, is that it is within a two-hour train ride from Paris, Cologne, Amsterdam, London, as well as my hometown Antwerp. I also enjoy spending summers in Sweden - my partner’s home country.
What piece of advice would you give to someone thinking about entering the biofuels industry?
Do not be afraid to ask questions – no one was born knowing that renewable diesel is a biofuel but not a biodiesel, and the fact that hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) is often made from animal fats does not make logical sense. The sector may seem quite particular, but soon enough you will not be able to watch the news without seeing a connection with biofuels in every item. Do not fall for the trap thinking biofuels and electric vehicles somehow compete with each other. Road electrification should be embraced, also from a biofuel perspective. Available volumes of biofuels will remain much needed to decarbonise the remaining liquid fuel pool. Aviation, shipping and trucking are all growing segments that remain dependent on liquid drop-in fuels, and even passenger vehicle fleets will take decades to fully electrify. The challenge of the energy transition in transport is immense, and we will need any low carbon option there is.
What do you think are some of the immediate challenges the sector faces in the years ahead?
There is no lack of challenges, which also means there are many opportunities. Limited feedstock availability is probably the most quoted concern within the sector. However, this is only an issue because demand for renewables is so high – those who invest in the right scalable and sustainable technologies will see their investment multiply. More general challenges are the war, inflation, and a potential recession – all of which are hurting many. Hopefully we can collectively overcome these challenging times with innovative ideas, smart policies, and ethical business. Perhaps the biggest lingering challenge of all is the climate. Not only do changing weather patterns increase feedstock volatility, but the scope and urgency of climate change will have repercussions for every part of the economy. Early signs appear that this could lead to a radical rethinking in how our energy system is designed – in which biofuels will undoubtedly play a key role.
For more information: Visit: stratasadvisors.com